A History of Anything

Posted by sepoy on May 26, 2005 · 5 mins read

I have been making jokes about this in the recent past. Even thought I'd do a post on it here. Arthur Krystal beat me to the punch. In the New Yorker [May 30th] is his review of At Days's Close: Night in Times Past by Roger Ekirch. Krystal opens the review with a bit of snark about the glut of "pop-history" books [as I term it]:

A man has written a book about the night. Well, why not? In the past decade or so, we've seen books on pencils, bookshelves, tobacco, cod, salt, spice, blood, bread, caffeine, crying, the penis, the breast, boredom, smiling, the hand, and masturbation. (Do the last six items seem to nudge one another?) Eventually, such books, and others like them, will all come to dust, including the two so far on dust itself, but before they do we might ask ourselves if this expenditure of print on the obvious and the quotidian constitutes anything like a trend, or even a cultural shift. [hyperlinks added, painfully.]

There are many more such pop-histories, rarely written by actual historians. A sample: There is corn, sugar, potato, vanilla, chocolate, cotton, hemp, heroin, cocaine, screws and screwdrivers, the wife, the numbers: zero, e and pi, hair, lesbian hair, fart, and finally [because I must REALLY stop], hip.

So what is going on? Before I get to my thoughts, here is what Krystal postulates:

If it seems that any noun in the dictionary can be tricked out as a book these days, it's because the minutiae of daily life have acquired some intellectual capital. Good microhistories do brisk business because they see the big picture in the smallest details, offering the hope that everything under the sun has meaning. So, whatever was formerly neglected, or looked at but not really seen - utensils, foodstuffs, or the hemp that was used to make the ladders that enabled enemies to scale the walls that housed a king - now demands the academy's respect and scrutiny.

Despite the book covers and titles, these are, broadly speaking, social or cultural histories of Western society. They follow a pretty set template - you start with classic literature and move on up to colonial records and archives and finally to 19th/20th c. cultural productions. They follow, if you will, a colored string through the various garments crumpled in the laundry basket of the past [eek!]. The emphasis is not to present a complete picture of a specific figure, time-period, region or practice but to gallop down the teleological path from then to now. The emphasis is to tell the history of commodity or consumption - in of itself [hint hint].

In this regard, these studies do mark a particular trend in the commercial reception of knowledge. They are dated before they are published, in my humble opinion. One can optimistically view them as trojan horses send into the masses to get them interested in history. Or one can pessimistically view them as the only vehicle for mass-publication available. Regardless, we can ask some questions: Are they popular? It is hard to say. None of these books have charted the NYT Bestsellers list while the tomes about DWM has been around there for a while. Are they any good? I have only read the one on Sugar and it is good. Most seem sketchy because...Are historians writing them? Hardly. A solid majority comes from the lit-crit crowd and the odd journalists. One can always put "A History of" in front of whatever without accrediation as a historian.

This is not to diss micro-histories which are, of course, a valuable tool of scholarship. To a generation of historians, Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worm: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller will serve as a template. But, then, Ginzburg's micro-history isn't the same as these pop-histories that we are discussing here.

I need an agent.

update: Evan at The Scope documents how all these micro-histories claim their it "changed the world".


Allison | May 26, 2005

It's an article, not a book, but your post brings to mind "The Ketchup Conundrum" by Malcom Gladwell (minutae demanding intense scrutiny and respect, etc.): http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_09_06_a_ketchup.html I've never been a ketchup person, but by the time I read the whole article I was dying for some with fries.

har | May 27, 2005

I need some of these books. For decoration/gag gift purposes of course.

sharon | May 27, 2005

Of course, those two books on Dust should not be confused with this one. (Which is fab.)

Caleb | May 27, 2005

You've done it! "A Brief History of Brief Histories!" I expect to see this on the window table at my local Barnes and Noble soon.

sepoy | May 27, 2005

Allison: thanks for that link. I had read it but forgotten. Sharon: Dust is, indeed, spectacular. Caleb & Har: For my B&N book, I will design the cover myself and I will call it Serious History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. This will begin the Serious History of... series. Like I said, I need an agent.

poorva | May 27, 2005

Check out http://www.slate.com/id/2118854/entry/2118924/ for an interesting take (albeit an Americanist focus) on the gap between academic histories and B&N history books. There the guy picked on the great-man-biography fixation; whatever the faults of these simplistic teleological narratives on farts and whatnot, they have to be preferable to those. Incidentally, what about Hendrik Hertzberg's nod to Imran Khan in the recent issue of the New Yorker?

Evan | May 27, 2005

Ekrich's book sounds interesting. Hopefully I'll get to recommend Bryan Palmer's Cultures of Darkness to someone that's reading Ekrich's book. Palmer's book is great, a social and cultural history of the night and transgressions, though sadly little-known.

thbt | May 27, 2005

That's one in the eye for Simon Schama.

bhikku | June 06, 2005